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The Merry Wives of Windsor (1600)

The Merry Wives of Windsor (1600)

Hundred Word Summary

Falstaff arrives in Windsor intent on romance, and two married ladies catch his eye.  But neither is likely to prove susceptible to the charms of “the fat knight”.

Meanwhile the wealthy Anne Page is plagued with suitors.  Her father prefers Slender, her mother Dr Caius, and Anne herself favours Fenton.

The two married ladies conspire to toy with Falstaff, first tipping him into the Thames, then lining up an unnerving midnight rendezvous in the forest.

When the moment comes, Falstaff is given the fright of his life, and Anne emerges to reveal to all that she means to marry Fenton.


Table of Contents



Great writers create memorable characters, and Shakespeare created any number who live vividly in the imagination: Shylock, Lady Macbeth, Romeo, Iago, Cleopatra, Hamlet.  It’s a long list, and even people who have never read a word of Shakespeare could add another half-a-dozen to the sequence.  One character who would crop up on many people’s list would be Falstaff.

Sir John Falstaff made his memorable first appearance in two history plays, “Henry IV Parts One and Two”.  He is among the most deceitful, greedy, entitled, dishonest, self-interested characters in English Literature.  But he is also somehow charming and engaging, and most of the characters with whom he comes into contact can’t help but like him.

The story goes that among his fans was Queen Elizabeth I, and “The Merry Wives of Windsor” is one result of her attraction to him.  It seems that she fell for Falstaff’s ambiguous charms while watching “Henry IV”, and requested of her obedient servant Master Shakespeare that he write a play featuring “Falstaff in love”.  This play is the result.

It isn’t the most distinguished play he wrote, nor the most consequential.  But it has its place among Shakespeare’s romantic comedies.  Falstaff is far from being a romantic hero, though happily there is a second romance to maintain the momentum of the plot when “the fat knight” – spoiler alert – comes to grief.  It was to be his third and last appearance in Shakespeare’s canon.  The next time we encounter him is to hear his death announced in “Henry V” – a prelude, one might say, to his subsequent literary immortality.


Scene by Scene

Act One Scene One

Agreement among his older relatives that Slender should marry the well-resourced Anne Page.

Robert Shallow, a country Justice, complains that Falstaff has wronged him by hunting on his land.

Falstaff meets Mistress Page and Mistress Ford, and bestows a kiss on Mistress Ford.

Slender cautiously agrees that he will marry Anne Page confident that love will develop.

Slender converses awkwardly with Anne, persuading her that he is brave as well as courteous.

Act One Scene Two

Sir Hugh Evans sends Slender’s compliments to Mistress Anne Page via his servant Simple.

Act One Scene Three

Falstaff is short of money, but sends romantic notes to Mistress Ford and Mistress Page.

But Nym and Pistol, who are to deliver the letters, conspire to betray Falstaff to the husbands.

Act One Scene Four

Hostess Quickly tells Simple she is happy to assist Slender in his plans to marry Anne Page.

Dr Caius, a French doctor, returns suddenly, to find Simple hiding in his closet.

Simple admits he was sent to enhance the marriage prospects of his master, Slender.

Dr Caius, who is also drawn to Anne, challenges Evans (who supports Slender) to a duel.

Mistress Quickly, who claims to know Anne better than others, knows her true love is Fenton.

Act Two Scene One

Mistress Page is outraged to receive a love letter from “this Flemish drunkard” Falstaff.

Mistress Ford arrives to reveal that she has had an identical letter from “this whale” Falstaff.

They agree to “be revenged on him” when their husbands appear and they “retire”.

Pistol tells Ford about Falstaff’s romantic plans, while Nym is busy informing Page.

Mistress Quickly heads off with the ladies, leaving Ford and Page to make sense of Falstaff.

Justice Shallow interrupts their reflections to tell them about the duel between Evans and Caius.

Ford privately reveals his suspicions of Falstaff and reveals “I have a disguise” to catch him out.

Act Two Scene Two

Falstaff refuses to lend Pistol any money and recommends he relax his morals if he’s to get rich.

Hostess Quickly reports to Falstaff that Mistress Ford will be alone at home if he cares to visit.

Moreover Mistress Page hopes “there will come a time” when she too will be alone at home.

Master Ford, disguised as Master Brook, pretends to Falstaff that he has long pursued Mistress Ford.

Master Brook will pay Falstaff to romance her so as to undermine her honour for his own purposes.

Falstaff reveals he is to meet Mistress Ford between ten and eleven, when her husband is away.

Ford, left alone, reflects on his anger at his wife and resolves never to trust her from now on.

Act Two Scene Three

Caius finds that Evans has not turned up for their duel, but he’s promised the chance to meet Anne.

Act Three Scene One

Evans and Caius convene for their duel, only to be persuaded by the Host to make their peace.

They agree to do so, and plan to “be revenge” on “this same scall, scurvy cogging companion”.

Act Three Scene Two

Ford reveals his anger at Falstaff’s machinations and plans to “take him, then torture my wife”.

Shallow reveals he is to dine with Anne Page in order to advance the claims of his cousin Slender.

Page senior supports Slender but rejects Fenton: “he capers, he dances … he writes verses”.

Act Three Scene Three

Mistress Ford, aided by Mistress Page, prepare to trick the romantically-minded Falstaff.

Falstaff reassures her that “I love thee; none but thee”, to which she reciprocates ambiguously.

Mistress Page announces that Ford is approaching to “search for a gentleman … in the house”.

Falstaff takes refuge in the laundry basket, effecting a narrow escape from Ford’s search party.

Mistress Ford sees off her angry husband and reflects that Falstaff “will have need of washing”.

Act Three Scene Four

Fenton admits he was originally attracted to Anne for her money, but now loves her sincerely.

Shallow announces to Anne that Slender loves her but he cuts a tongue-tied figure in conversation.

Anne’s parents tell Fenton “come not to my child” but he engages Hostess Quickly to speak for him.

Hostess Quickly reveals that she is working for all three suitors, Fenton, Caius and Slender.

Act Three Scene Five

Falstaff recovers at the Garter Inn from his excursion in the river with Mistress Ford’s dirty laundry.

Hostess Quickly arrives to convey Mistress Ford’s new invitation to visit later that evening.

Falstaff is visited by Master Ford, disguised as Brook, and exaggerates the encounter with his wife.

Ford asks for an assurance that Falstaff will “undertake her no more” but Falstaff is already late.

Ford sees himself as a potential cuckold, and resolves to tackle Falstaff at his house.

Act Four Scene One

Rev Evans tests Page Junior on his Latin, which Hostess Quickly misunderstands as she listens in.

Act Four Scene Two

Falstaff extracts Mistress Ford’s reassurance her husband is elsewhere when Mistress Page arrives.

She reveals that Master Ford is in an angry mood, his irritation mainly focused on “the fat knight”.

Falstaff emerges from hiding in a panic, and disguises himself as “the fat woman of Brentford”.

Mistress Ford hopes her husband encounters Falstaff in this disguise, as he “cannot abide” her.

She sends her servants off with the laundry basket, which engages her husband when he appears.

Ford demands the laundry basket be emptied, then beats the “old woman” as she makes her escape.

Rev Evans spots the old woman has a beard, and Ford’s party chase the “poor unvirtuous fat knight”.

Act Four Scene Three

Bardolph asks to borrow horses from the Garter Inn for the German guests to go and visit the Duke.

Act Four Scene Four

Ford begs his wife’s forgiveness that he mistrusted her: “Henceforth do what thou wilt”, he tells her.

Mistress Page suggests she arrange to meet Falstaff by a “haunted” tree in the forest at midnight.

She suggests when they meet, a group of children “from forth a sawpit rush at once” to pinch him.

The plan is agreed and the husbands together with Rev Evans hurry to prepare for the ambush.

Mistress Page resolves that Dr Caius, “well money’d” and with friends at court, will marry Anne.

Act Four Scene Five

Concerns arise at the Garter that a fat woman has been seen approaching Falstaff’s bedroom.

Simple has questions for Falstaff about Anne Page’s marriage plans, and receives vague replies.

News arrives that the Host’s horses have disappeared, apparently a ruse of Evans and Caius.

Hostess Quickly appears and reveals to Falstaff that Mistress Ford also suffered a beating.

Act Four Scene Six

Fenton reveals to the Host that “fair Anne Page” loves him and has “answer’d my affection”.

But her father has instructed her to elope with Slender this evening, to marry “immediately”.

Meanwhile Anne’s mother has instructed her to make off with Doctor Caius and marry him.

But she means to deceive both parents and marry Fenton: “you shall not lack a priest” says the Host.

Act Five Scene One

Falstaff tells Mistress Quickly that he will have one last go at his romance with Mistress Ford.

He tells Master Ford (disguised as Brook) that he was unwelcome last time he visited Mistress Ford.

But he promises Brook that he will “deliver his wife into your hand” that evening.

Act Five Scene Two

Slender reassures Page that he and Anne are mutually prepared for events later that night.

Act Five Scene Three

Meanwhile Dr Caius similarly reassures Mistress Page: “I know vat I have to do”.

Mistress Page predicts that the burst of light at Herne’s oak that evening will “amaze” Falstaff.

Act Five Scene Four

Rev Evans reminds the “fairies” that he will give the order to appear when the time is right.

Act Five Scene Five

Falstaff disguised as Herne arrives at the oak at midnight ready to meet Mistress Ford.

Mistress Ford arrives with Mistress Page to be welcomed by an unsuspecting Falstaff.

At the sound of a disturbance both women “run off” leaving Falstaff alone and bemused.

Suddenly Rev Evans and others disguised as fairies appear with candles (“tapers”) and Falstaff hides.

Evans says “I smell a man” and Hostess Quickly suggests a trial by fire: if it hurts, he is guilty.

Falstaff feels the pain, and while Hostess Quickly regales him with song, the fairies pinch him.

Dr Caius steals a boy in green and Slender a boy in white, both believing they have Anne Page.

Page, Ford and their wives emerge to mock Falstaff and he admits “I am made an ass”.

Ford tells Falstaff he will take him to Windsor where he will meet Master Brook to repay his fee.

Page and his wife are both confident that their chosen suitor has married their daughter.

Bur Slender arrives to reveal that his prized woman “was not Anne, but a postmaster’s boy”.

Next Dr Caius appears to reveal that he “married un garcon, a boy … It is not Anne Page”.

Finally Fenton and Anne appear and Fenton explains that they have been “long since contracted”.

He says it would have been a bigger crime to have married somebody she didn’t love.

Page accepts the marriage, commenting “What cannot be eschew’d must be embraced”.

Ford promises Falstaff enigmatically that Master Brook will indeed lie with Mistress Ford that night.


Thinking Aloud

The play is built around two love stories.  On one side, Anne Page has three suitors for her attractive hand: Master Slender enjoys the support of her father; Dr Caius, a French medical man, is backed by Anne’s mother; a third suitor is Master Fenton, favourite of the girl herself.  The second love story involves Falstaff.  He has eyes for Anne Page’s mother but his main focus emerges as Mistress Ford.  As the play progresses, a contrast between the two love stories begins to develop: Falstaff is all undignified bluster and deceit; Anne, by contrast, is a picture of modesty and calm restraint. Events in the closing scene of the play (5.5) will deliver a verdict on both romances.


A second contrast emerges in the different approaches taken by the two men whose wives catch Falstaff’s eye.  Master Page is detached and trusting whereas Master Ford is quick to suspect his wife of infidelity, and dons a disguise (as Master Brook) to investigate matters.  In the end, once his suspicions have proved groundless, he is forced into a somewhat humbling retreat (“I will never mistrust my wife again”, he promises in 5.5).  Shakespeare lived some three days’ travel from his wife while he worked in London, and may have known both mind-sets from the inside.


The theme of jealousy (“the green-eyed monster” as Iago describes this emotion in “Othello”) is a common one in Shakespeare’s plays.  But the mood varies.  When Falstaff confidently reveals to Master Ford, disguised as Brook, how he plans to enjoy the favours of his wife, the potential cuckold is understandably furious (“I will rather trust a thief than my wife with herself”, he announces), but the mood remains humorous.  Elsewhere in Shakespeare, however, jealousy has a different flavour – for example in “Othello”, where the love of the hero for Desdemona is destroyed by Iago’s lies amid much grief and bloodshed.  The happiest marriage in Shakespeare, comments the critic Harold Bloom, is between Lady Macbeth and Macbeth. 


One ingredient of Falstaff’s appetite for love in this play is his straitened financial circumstances: he is broke, and both Mistress Page and Mistress Ford seem to be promising sources of revenue.  A similar theme reinforces the attractions of Anne Page, who is good, as Sir Hugh Evans puts it in 1.1, for “seven hundred pounds of moneys, and gold and silver”.  On hearing this, her suitor Slender is impressed: “I know the young gentlewoman”, he comments, “she has good gifts”.  The confusion of romance and hard cash is a routine ingredient of Shakespeare’s plays: “The Merchant of Venice” for example features in Portia a marriageable heroine as well-heeled as she is attractive; more seriously, objections to Margaret of Anjou as a potential bride for Henry VI centre on her poverty, and in “King Lear”, the Duke of Burgundy drops out of the race to marry Cordelia when “her price is fall’n”. 


Many of Shakespeare’s romantic comedies combine innocent deception with dramatic irony, with the result that the audience knows what’s going on even if the characters don’t. Here the deception begins with Falstaff’s plans to express his romantic urges with two married women, and with his servants’ decision to complicate matters without his knowledge.  Disguise is often a key ingredient in dramatic irony, and it makes an appearance here in the shape of Master Brook. Once again, the audience knows more than the characters, and derives much of its pleasure from this imbalance.


A subsidiary theme in the play is the comedy Shakespeare derives from non-standard uses of English. Key figures here are the Welsh prelate Evans (“I will knog your urinals about your knave’s coxcomb” etc) and the French doctor Caius (“Ay, be-gar; and de maid a love a-me: my nursh-a Quickly tell me so mush”).  Other examples include Hostess Quickly’s malapropisms: “Alas the day! Good heart, that was not her fault: she does so take on with her men; they mistook their erection”.  Apparently they mistook their direction.  Play with Standard English is a familiar trope in Shakespeare’s depictions of characters from overseas: other examples include Portia’s suitors in “The Merchant of Venice” and Princess Katharine in “Henry V”.


Falstaff’s disguise as the “fat woman of Brentford” in 4.2 draws on a long tradition in Shakespeare’s plays in which gender is presented as fluid and negotiable.  His plays are awash with examples of females disguising themselves as males: Portia in “The Merchant of Venice” and Viola in “Twelfth Night” are among the best known.  And then there is Rosalind in “As You Like It”, who disguises herself as a male (name Ganymede) briefly assumes a female role.  In this scene, Falstaff reverses the process and emerges from hiding at Mistress Ford’s house disguised as a female.  In Shakespeare’s theatre, of course, all parts were performed by men, regardless of gender.  Shakespeare subversion of this convention suggests a certain reluctance to accept the limitations Elizabethan England placed on gender.


In the closing scene, Falstaff is subjected to a kind of trial by ordeal.  Hostess Quickly explains the principle – that when the suspect is burned, “if he be chaste” (or innocent) he won’t feel any pain.  But “if he start, / It is the flesh of a corrupted heart”.  This primitive method of establishing guilt and innocence seems unlikely to be effective, but in Falstaff’s case, it seems to work, as his reaction to the flame confirms: “Oh! Oh! Oh!”

Quick Quiz

  1. Which crime has Falstaff committed, according to Robert Shallow in 1.1?
  2. With which aquatic animal does Mistress Ford compare Falstaff in 2.1?
  3. Who reveals to Master Ford details of Falstaff’s romantic intentions?
  4. Which pseudonym does Master Ford adopt in order to deceive Falstaff?
  5. Who persuades Evans and Caius to abort their duel in 3.1?
  6. How does Falstaff escape from the vengeful Master Ford in 3.3?
  7. For whom does Hostess Quickly claim to be working in 3.4?
  8. Identify Falstaff’s disguise on his second escape in 4.2.
  9. Which tree is the location for the midnight episode prepared for Falstaff?
  10. With whom does Slender mistakenly elope in the final scene?
  1. Hunting on his land
  2. Whale
  3. Pistol
  4. Brook
  5. The Host
  6. In a laundry basket
  7. All three of Anne’s suitors
  8. The fat woman of Brentford
  9. Herne’s oak
  10. A postmaster’s boy


Falstaff is not at his most venal in this play: for that pleasure, “Henry IV Parts One and Two” remain the key texts.  Nonetheless his guilt-free romancing of other men’s wives here (“I do mean to make love to Ford’s wife”, 1.3) and his motives for doing so (“she bears the purse too; she is a region in Guiana, all gold and bounty”, 1.3) attest to his easy-going conscience in matters affecting his own appetites and desires.

Part of Falstaff’s charm is his hapless nature: he is so poor at deceiving and so guileless in his adventures that it is difficult to take him entirely seriously.  In the event, Master Ford is humiliated by his own suspicions, whereas Master Page remains detached, focused on more important matters.  Falstaff comes to grief here because his nature is fundamentally child-like, even innocent – not, perhaps a word one would naturally associate with him.


Last Word

Other than the History Plays, “The Merry Wives of Windsor” is the only play Shakespeare wrote that is set in England.  True, “King Lear” and “Cymbeline” are both set in Ancient Britain, but this is many centuries before the arrival of the English in these islands, and therefore many years before it is possible to speak of England.  Equally, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” has an inescapably English feel about its locations and characters, but it is, of course, set in Athens.

It is a curious anomaly that England’s premier literary figure should have been so reluctant to write directly about England.  But maybe Shakespeare was doing no more than merely obeying the law.  As early as 1559, an edict had been issued forbidding plays which dealt in “matters of religion or of the governance of the estate of the Commonwealth” – matters that could not be “handled before any audience but of grave and discreet persons”.  It has been said that Shakespeare was the only one of his generation of playwrights to avoid prison at one time or another for something they wrote.  It seems likely that the best way to stay out of trouble in his day was to cast your gaze to the distant horizon and dream of locations beyond the seas. 

In the matter of its place, then, if in no other, “The Merry Wives of Windsor” can justly claim to be unique.

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